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Want to Be a College Running Coach? Here’s How to Make It Happen

From how to get your first job to overcoming the biggest obstacles, 12 current and former collegiate coaches offer their tips for making it in this competitive field.

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Running your best race is one thing. But helping other athletes achieve their goals, both in sports and in life? It’s a whole new level of rewarding, say women who have made a career of being a running coach.

While there are many ways to coach—for charity or local groups, online, or at middle or high schools—there’s something special about the collegiate level, says Maurica Powell, director of track and field and cross-country at the University of Washington.

College coaches meet recruits when they’re around 17, still living with their parents. Over four to five years, those runners mature into full-fledged adults, and coaches are often the most consistent presence in their lives. “Watching kids grow and learn and get better at a lot of different things is a really meaningful experience for me,” she says.

She’s not alone—many other coaches say despite long hours and high demands, they found their roles incredibly fulfilling. And they wish more women would join them. According to a report by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, only 18.8 percent of head track and field coaches leading women’s teams at NCAA Division I schools in the 2018-2019 season were women.

While both women and men can coach well, having more female representation in the sport tends to improve conversations with women around issues like periods and disordered eating, says ‘A Havahla Haynes, head coach of track and field and cross-country at Southern Methodist University. Plus, more diversity in all respects increases the chance any athlete can make a connection with someone on staff.

“We just have different perspectives. We approach things differently. Females are often more comfortable speaking about things to a female coach, and some parents want their children to be coached by a female,” notes Rhonda Riley, head coach of the women’s cross-country team at Duke University (and interim head of the men’s program as well). “What I hope for our profession is to have more females, but they need to be qualified, they need to be great.”

Your own running paces don’t matter nearly as much as other qualities, she says: attention to detail, a thirst to learn more about the underlying science, and skill at communicating clearly and effectively with recruits, athletes, and families.

Think you’ve got what it takes? This precise moment may be a little tricky, as it is in so many other fields. Summer is usually the time when coaches make moves and positions open, and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to hiring freezes and uncertainty, Riley says.

But in the bigger picture, “if you are a woman and you want to get into coaching, it’s a really good time,” says Sara Slattery, head men’s and women’s cross-country coach at Grand Canyon University. Both male and female coaches are now eager to hire qualified women, and there’s a growing network of support within the profession. “All the women I know are very open and want to help other women.”

Case in point: a dozen of them shared their challenges, victories, and best advice with Women’s Running. Here’s the advice they offer women interested in following in their footsteps.

How to Become a Running Coach

Do you have to run in high school and college yourself?

Most coaches have that experience, and some have also had pro or elite careers—such as Laurie Henes, the women’s track and field head coach at North Carolina State, and Amy Rudolph, who went to the Olympics twice in the 5,000 meters and now serves as associate head women’s cross-country and assistant track and field coach at Iowa State University.

That said, it isn’t essential—though Riley played soccer and ran track in high school, she didn’t continue in college. She got her foot in the door by volunteering as a high school coach, a path she recommends to other prospective coaches. Though the lack of collegiate experience might have made her first step harder, she says, it hasn’t held her back in the long term.

Do you need a certain degree or certification? 

“There aren’t a lot of formal ways into coaching,” says Alison Wade, editor of the Fast Women newsletter and a former coach at five different schools, including Amherst College, Tufts University, and the University of Virginia. “There are a lot of informal ways.” Powell agrees: “There really isn’t a set pathway that takes you from school to the field,” she says.

Many coaches have bachelor’s or master’s degrees in fields like kinesiology or exercise science. Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, offers a master’s program in exercise and sport studies specifically designed to train coaches of female athletes in any sport.

Maurica Powell coaching in 2020.
Maurica Powell at the 2020 Indoor Preview at the Dempsey Center in Seattle, hosted by the University of Washington track team.

However, not all coaches narrow in on those fields of study. Powell has a master’s degree in social work, while Haynes majored in sociology and earned a master’s in sports administration with a focus in marketing and public relations. Cassie Funke-Harris, now the head men’s and women’s cross-country and assistant track and field coach at Amherst College, majored in biology at Carleton College with plans of becoming a virology researcher (then went on to earn a master’s in kinesiology).

Some positions require certification through one of two organizations: USA Track & Field (USATF) or US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA). Both groups offer courses and certificates at multiple levels, as well as opportunities to network and connect.

So, how do you get started, then?

Even coaches who did run in college or afterward often begin with a volunteer assistant position, sometimes at the high school or college for which they competed. That’s also a good way to figure out if it’s a career path you truly want to pursue, Slattery says.

“People should just make it known that they want to coach,” says Melissa Ferry, head of cross-country and track and field at Virginia Union University. She’s always willing to talk to women who approach her, and to connect them with other receptive coaches in the area if she doesn’t have a spot for them. “Almost every track program is short-handed and underfunded.”

You can also browse listings through the NCAA or the USTFCCCA, where many head coaches post listings for assistant roles, Ferry says. And many schools (particularly public ones) are required to post jobs on their own websites. So typing “track and field jobs” in Google can yield positions in your area, she recommends.

And how do you progress after that?

There’s a big drop-off between women at assistant levels and those who continue in the profession, several coaches say. “We’re missing the boat on retention,” says Sarah Haveman, head coach of men’s and women’s cross-country teams at the University of Illinois. She always encourages young coaches to start considering their trajectory early: “What is your plan? What is your goal? What does your résumé look like?”

Factors to consider include whether you want to coach women only, or men and women. Some women do both, including Haveman, Funke-Harris, and Caryl Smith Gilbert, director of track and field at the University of Southern California. Often, though, female coaches begin by coaching women, then coaching men at a smaller or lower-profile school before taking over a larger program.

And, decide how willing you are to relocate. “A lot of coaches want to live in the place they want to live,” says Smith Gilbert, who coached at Penn State University, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Central Florida before landing at USC. But with rare exceptions—such as Henes, who ran at North Carolina State and has now coached there since 1992—most women move a few times as they rise up the ranks. “You don’t get to choose. You have to go where the job is,” Smith Gilbert says.

USC Women's Track & Field team with running coach Caryl Smith Gilbert.
USC Women’s Track & Field competes in the final round of the 2018 NCAA Track & Field Championship, coached by Caryl Smith Gilbert. Photo: Courtesy USC

Much like there’s no formal pathway into the profession, there’s no set strategy for continuing education and improvement. “If you want to do those things, you have to seek it out and broaden your own horizons,” Powell says.

That might mean attending conventions and courses through USATF or USTFCCCA. The latter, under Riley’s guidance, also has a mentorship program that matches experienced women with younger mentees (applications for next year will be up on the website soon). A group called WeCOACH also offers education, career development, and connection for women in the profession across sports.

Or you can even just pick up the phone and ask another coach for advice, something many of the coaches say they do frequently. “An interesting part of this job is that if you want to keep getting better at it, you have to get out of your comfort zone and you have to bother people,” Powell says.

Finding mentors, formally or informally, is huge, says Funke-Harris; she has a group of experienced women coaches she turns to or advice on everything from travel tips to navigating conflicts with athletes, parents, and colleagues. “It lessens your anxiety and it makes you feel better about some of the decisions you make,” she says.

Sarah Haveman coaching at the Big Ten Indoor Championships.
Sarah Haveman coaching Illinois Track & Field at 2019-20 Big Ten Indoor Championships. Photo: Courtesy University of Illinois Athletics

Plus, those connections, paired with success at your current role, often lead to future opportunities, Haveman says. Some institutions require even higher-level jobs to be posted, and sometimes that’s how they’re filled—Funke-Harris, for instance, filled out an application for her current role, though she notes the fact that her previous athletic director at Carleton College knew the one at Amherst probably helped her land an interview.

But often, athletic directors or head coaches will directly approach and recruit a coach from another school who’s impressed them (that’s how Powell wound up moving from the University of Oregon to the University of Washington in 2018, and Havemen from Purdue to the University of Illinois in 2016).

How much do running coaches get paid? 

Head coaches and program directors at big schools may command comfortable contracts, but starting out, many assistant coaches work either as volunteers or for small stipends.

Often, they coach on the side of full-time paying positions—perhaps as teachers, Ferry says. (Occasionally, a coaching contract will come with a teaching requirement. USC’s Smith Gilbert, for instance, taught jogging and strength training in her first job at Penn State.)

Once you’re on salary, the pay rate varies widely based on the position, the school, and how well the program is funded, Wade says. While many Division I jobs are viewed as more prestigious, the funding doesn’t always correspond.

“You don’t get into coaching because of the money. You’re getting into coaching to make a difference and to really impact the lives of who you’re working with,” Riley says. “I’m very fortunate where I’m at to get compensated, but it’s taken me a while to get to this level.”

Through the USTFCCCA, Ferry is working on surveys that could give women a better idea of what coaches make, including how salaries and stipends stack up by race and gender. In the meantime, she says, women looking at jobs at public universities can request (or sometimes find online) current or previous contracts for reference.

What are the important questions to ask when you get an offer?

Salaries aren’t always negotiable, though Ferry and Riley hope that by providing more data and support, they’ll help women begin asking for more. What sometimes can be altered is other benefits or perks that help balance work and family, such as family travel expenses or child care for meets.

Slattery, for instance, had just had her second child when she was recruited to coach at GCU. She laid out all her requests, including working from home when she wasn’t at practice—and got them. “Be confident in what you want and how you can accomplish things that you need,” she says. “As women we’re more afraid to do that sometimes. But it’s worth it, on both ends.”

Henes agrees that as a qualified woman, you bring a lot to the table. “It is still fairly male dominated, but there are a lot of examples of women at the helm of full programs right now—men and women or just the women’s programs,” she says. “Don’t be intimidated and play to your strengths. Women tend to be really good at the communication and trust aspect, and those are things that are huge in this job.”

What’s a typical day, week, or year like?

In a word, long. “Our sport is one of the few sports where it’s all year,” Rudolph says. Summers are spent recruiting and sometimes at camp; for full programs, cross-country starts in the fall, in winter it’s indoor track, and then outdoor track in the spring. (There are schools that have only a cross-country or track and field program, but not both, which is something else to consider when applying.)

Depending on where you are in one of those seasons, you might have practice each weekday, then travel to meets on the weekends. In between, tasks include everything from planning workouts and routes to managing equipment and squaring budgets. Even if you have an idea in mind of how your day will go, it’s likely to be disrupted, making flexibility critical, Rudolph says.

After that, “you’re kind of on 24-7,” she says, staying available to your athletes. Not all the texts and calls will have to do with running, a fact that many prospective coaches might not realize, says Andrea Grove-McDonough, director of cross-country and track and field at the University of Toledo.

Andrea Grove-McDonough, running coaching
Andrea Grove-McDonough coaching at the Mel Brodt Collegiate Opener. Photo: Courtesy Andrea Grove-McDonough

“Young people have things going on in their lives—family stuff, personal stuff,” she says. She’s talked runners through everything from bad races to losing a mother to breast cancer. “Playing this role in people’s lives is sometimes overwhelming, but that also makes it rewarding.”

Coaches say they’ve learned to be intentional about setting boundaries and taking breaks. Some turn their phones off at a set time each night, for instance. Henes makes sure she and her family take long vacations off the grid in December and in the summer, making the most of the time—called the dead period—when coaches can’t make contact with recruits.

What are the biggest challenges, and how do coaches navigate them?

The long hours and frequent travel make being a running coach with young children feel nearly impossible at times. “It’s like you’re cooking on a stove and there’s six pots going,” Powell says. “One of them’s only boiling over a little and the other is boiling over a lot. So you go to that one first. It’s just kind of like that for a while.”

Knowing that ahead of time, and letting go of the illusion of perfection, helps. So, too, does a strong support system. “If I didn’t have the support of my husband, I couldn’t do what I do,” says Smith Gilbert, who has three sons. Other coaches live near grandparents or other family members, or fly them out for certain events; Grove-McDonough’s stepfather traveled to meets so often she took to calling him her “Manny.”

Male head coaches and bosses don’t always understand the unique challenges. “I tell male colleagues, it’s not like I don’t think you miss your children,” Grove-McDonough says. But they’ve rarely toted infants on the road or breastfed them on buses between races. The more women who stay in coaching and ascend to higher levels of leadership, the greater the understanding and support for everyone, she believes.

Deciding what you want your team’s culture to be, and then figuring out how to create it, also stands as no small task. “What are you going to do when somebody shows up late to practice or skips their meeting with you for the third time?” Funke-Harris says. “As a head coach, you decide what’s important and what’s not and  keep the team moving in that direction.”

That’s something that comes through experience and tenacity, Smith Gilbert says. “You can’t give up; you can’t quit. People are going to take you the wrong way. They’re going to hurt your feelings,” she says. She always remembers that her athletes are still young and learning themselves. “They always come back to you later on and say they’re sorry or thank you for what you did for them.”

What makes bring a running coach worthwhile despite those obstacles?

Even coaches who reached the highest levels of the sport themselves report a special joy in feeling invested in someone else’s success, both on and off the track and roads.

While she’s coached athletes to fast times, podiums, and championships, it’s the chance to teach them something they wind up using outside the sport, in life, that gives Olympian Rudolph the greatest feeling of accomplishment. “I think this is my true calling, where I feel most comfortable,” she says. “It’s everything I’ve wanted for myself after my running was over.”

This story is the final installment in our series on women in coaching, where we highlight female running coaches and their individual paths to success. Find more here, and discover tips from many of these women to improve your own running here